Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management

Book Review: High Altitude Leadership

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High Altitude Leadership

High Altitude Leadership

“There exists a rare and special breed of leaders who…are constantly pushing past current leadership trends in order to achieve…extremely challenging goals. We call these people high altitude leaders.” High altitude leaders succeed by recognizing and surviving specific dangers that always emerge when they take themselves or their teams to the highest levels of performances. Principles that produce peak performance in the face of extreme challenges comprise the book HIGH ALTITUDE LEADERSHIP: What the World’s Most Forbidding Peaks Teach Us About Success.

The authors’ combined experience provides a perfect backdrop for powerful lessons on leadership. Chris Warner is a climber and entrepreneur (among other things) who has lead hundreds of mountaineering expeditions to the world’s most dominant mountains. He teams up with Don Schmincke, a “mad scientist” and dynamic key-note speaker who uses anthropology and evolutionary genetics to remedy high failure rates of management theories. They blend their experience to point out important principles of successful leadership. The book, replete with stories of leadership in life-or-death circumstances, describes leadership from the paradigm of eight dangers high altitude leaders face and how to handle the dangers to achieve peak performance. The following describes the eight dangers and how you can avoid them:

  • Fear of death: Leadership can be difficult and dangerous. You accept the title of leader and work to make positive change in your organization. Then you slip off the cliff into reality. Things start to fall apart around you. Fear creeps in. When faced with fear most people freeze up. Whether climbing a mountain or running a company, letting fear take hold on your actions will lead to failure. Taking decisive action is the antidote for fear. “Acting decisively in the face of great fear triggers the actions needed for success.” Do not shy away from experiences that evoke feelings of facing death. Embracing the death of projects, goals, careers, teams or companies will propel you to become a more effective leader.
  • Selfishness: The act of placing a higher priority on one’s own desires or “needs” than on the desires and needs of other people defines the word ‘selfishness.’ Selfish behavior robs companies of profits, reduces job satisfaction and weakens organizations’ culture. Overcoming selfishness is critical to effective leadership. This is done by crafting a compelling saga — language and actions that inspire passion for a strategic result. The compelling saga drives performance, inspires value-based behavior and provides strategic focus.
  • Tool seduction: Tools are absolutely necessary in climbing and in business; but in the critical moments, even the best tools break or fail to provide the results expected. Do not be seduced by them. Seek for ways to use tools (software, hardware, new programs) effectively without getting bogged down and losing productivity. Adapt your tools to you (and your organization), not the other way around.
  • Arrogance: “Arrogance places organizations and teams in danger of death every day.” Read any major news source and you will find evidence of the effects of arrogance on companies and individuals. The simple cure for arrogance is humility. Though somewhat misunderstood, especially in a business context, humility actually stimulates strength and produces growth. A high altitude leader learns from failure and “finds arrogance intolerable in a team.”
  • Lone heroism: Ego-driven, selfish, glory-seeking heroism is dangerous. Lone heroism sucks profits because of the resources needed to clean up the damage it causes. To treat the affects of lone heroism, develop partnerships with other individuals and companies. Partnerships will help you leverage the strengths of many, which are always greater and more enduring that individual strengths.
  • Cowardice: Like fear, cowardice stops employees from challenging the status quo, holding others accountable and exposing weakness in a team. The cure for cowardice is bravery. Bravery can be induced by the constructive use of truth, shame and walking the talk.
  • Comfort: Everybody’s committed when things are comfortable. When they grow difficult you see who the true leaders are by their actions. “Great achievements sometimes require enduring extreme discomfort. And that’s when real leadership is tested, validated, and proven.” You need to persevere through difficult times, and then when things are going smoothly, watch out even more vigilantly for signs of too much comfort.
  • Gravity: Leaders choose to go to new heights; gravity is the great equalizer. In business, gravity emerges as a force of uncertainty that sometimes propels you and other times sucks you down. Let luck (yes luck) maximize your opportunities for success by being open to new experiences. Listen to your lucky hunches; your gut is usually right. Expect good fortune and visualize yourself achieving it — this creates a powerful source for success. Don’t dwell on the bad things that happen, focus on the positive.

High Altitude Leadership is a must-read for anyone seeking to improve his or her leadership abilities. The “cures” for the eight steps build on each other to derive a complete package of behavior that leads to success. The stories about climbing the world’s highest mountains are gripping and envelop you in the book’s principles so powerfully you come away feeling like you’ve been there, and with clear directives on how to apply the principles. I have never done serious mountain climbing or high-altitude mountaineering, yet I found myself captivated by the stories and the way of life the book endorses. The authors’ ability to weave real-world high adventure into a compelling leadership book speaks volumes about their experience. The combination is powerful and absolutely worth the read!


The Product Management Perspective: High Altitude Leadership promotes principles that — if applied to product management — will improve your products, strengthen your teams and propel you to new heights as a product manager (and beyond).

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: High Altitude Leadership

  1. Michael, great review of a great sounding book. Thanks for mentioning it my blog. You’ve just helped add to my leadership collection! -Art

  2. Sounds like an interesting book. I will have to read it. Embracing death is an important leadership skill in order to make sure we are living our lives to the fullest.

  3. @Art – Thanks for the comment; happy to introduce you to a new book that I know you will appreciate.

    @Jann – Thank you too; you definitely need to read this book. The authors do a great job of not only bringing out important leadership principles, but also drawing you into the story in a way that makes the principles become real in your life. It’s more than a book, it’s an experience.

    -Michael

  4. I want to subscribe to your feed but I can not seem to find where.

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